Abstract: The article attempts to explore the different connotations of meaning that first nation people of north America and Canada associate with words like “survival” and “frontier”. Poetry is, in most cases the chosen medium of expression of the first nation’s women writers. Their poetry is moreover mooted in their complex beliefs and myths which have been under constant threat by the attempts of the colonisers to make their way to “progress” smooth. The first nations women poets have to combat silencing, to celebrate positive aspects of first nations culture and to prepare their people to overcome the obstacles to survival. The article makes a survey of the more important of first nation women poets like Shawa Lynn Danielle, Jeanetta Colhouns, Mercy Rendon, Sky Blue Mary Morin, Charlotte Nahbexie etc.
Keywords: first nations, first nations’ women writing, North America, women poetry, women writing, aboriginals, indigenous writing, survival of native people, mainstream literature
“Every country or culture has a single unifying and informing symbol at its core” (Atwood 31). For America, it is the Frontier ……. it suggests a place that is new, where the older can (and should) be discarded; a line that is always expanding, taking on or ‘conquering’ every fresh virgin territory” (31). ‘The central symbol for Canada is undoubtedly survival, la survivance” (32). It means “hanging on, staying alive” (33). For early explorers and settlers in North America, these words meant almost the same, ‘survival in the face of ‘hostile’ elements and / or natives: carving out a place and a way of keeping alive” (32). But to the First Nations people who were the original inhabitants of the land which is now called the United States of America and Canada, the words “frontier” and “survival” meant displacement, dispossession and cultural genocide.
As “[a] preoccupation with one’s survival is necessarily also a preoccupation with the obstacles of survival” (Atwood 33), the colonial forces in North America and their national governments were bent on surmounting these “obstacles” by destroying the aboriginal population and hence followed a policy of genocide. For the past 500 years, the colonisers have been trying to stamp out the First Nations people to make their way to “Progress” smooth. In this process much blood has been shed, many races, cultures and languages have been erased, many forests have been denuded, many species have become extinct. This is 2003. The New Millennium, witness a burgeoning of First Nation peoples writing contesting colonialism, cultural hegemony, economic exploitation and asserting their cultural and land rights. They expose the racist colonial myth of “survival” which to them is a euphemism for cultural genocide. They ask uncomfortable questions like “whose survival?”. Survival of the coloniser or the colonised indigenous peoples? As a student, teacher and researcher in First Nations Cultures and Literatures, I think, this is a million dollar question which will be echoed more powerfully throughout the world in the years to come.
As the idea of survival as the dominant move of North American mainstream literature was articulated by a celebrated women writer, I begin by pointing out how the First Nations Women Writer’s notion of survival is far different, if not antithetical, to the Eurocentric white women writers. The argument advanced here is that First Nations Literatures, especially First Nations Women’s writing is primarily, documents of their struggle for cultural survival despite the processes of colonization, dispossession, objectification and marginalization. The paper also argues that First Nations Women Writings, especially poetry are attempts to recreate their heritage, culture, morality, language and ecosystems in many ways. A careful study of the entire corpus of First Nations Women’s writing, irrespective of the genres – though the genre boundaries are often broken – will show that they are in one way or other celebrations of Aboriginal life, culture and world view.
However, critical appreciation of First Nations Women’s writing by Natives were mainly based on popular works like Alice French’s My Name is Masak (1977), Leslie Marmon Selka’s Ceremony (1977), Maria Cambell’sHalfbreed (1979), Beatrice Culleton’s In Search of April Rain Tree (1983), Jeannette Armstrong’s Slash (1985), Lee Maracle, I am a Woman (1996), Anna Lee Walter’s Ghost Singer (1988) and so on. Most of them write in more than one genre. But there is hardly any one who has not tried poetry. As Beth Brant rightly observes “Poetry seems to be the choice of telling for many Native Women” (179). Today we have a spate of First Nations Women poets whose poems articulate the struggles to survive. Hence the focus here is on poetry as instances of celebration of survival. This study is based on the poems included in four significant volumes namely, A Gathering of Spirit : a Collection of North American Indian Women (1988) edited by Beth Brant, Gatherings : The Enowkin Journal of First North American Peoples, Vol.II(1991); The Colour of Resistance: A Contemporary Collection of Writing by Aboriginal Women (1993) anthologized by Connie Fife and Writing the circle: Native Women of Western Canada (1993), an anthology compiled and edited by Jeanne Perrault and Sylvia Vance. As the entire body of First Nations Literature is related to the idea of their survival as distinct people, references to non-poetic works including oratures, statements, conversations, interviews and critical observations by Native Writers, especially women writers are also made wherever found necessary.
Generations before the Europeans invaded the aboriginal people of North America, their grandmothers, grandfathers, and ancestors lived, breathed, held ceremonies and governed themselves according to the complex demands and gifts and land, their Mother. Theirs was a life rooted in respect, spirituality and “a little bit of humour”. For 500 years, their cultures, languages, land, governments and children have all been the subject of attack and hence when the First Nations Women writers read the history of Indian people, “it tells the story of a people’s culture; it tells the story of a people’s struggle to survive” (Blaeser 47).
The original free and sovereign indigenous people of the Americas bear the wounds and scars of five hundred years of oppression, genocide, discrimination, racism, bigotry, lies and falsehoods which “is not easy to forgive and forget especially when blatant discrimination continues” (McCloud 260). Today they have come together after a long, hard road on which they still travel. Like the First Nations people everywhere, they are still feeling the effects of colonization. Some of them can’t speak their language, some were stolen outright from their people, and their resources were over exploited. Nichole Tanguay in her poem “Where Will the Children play” writes: “They have raped and tortured your body, taken your soul and sold it for more greed”. (59)
Yet the First Nations women have come together to forge stronger links. They have beamed of similarities as First Nations people and their differences as men and women. One hundred and fifty years of the most consistently vicious press, newspapers, dime novels, text books have portrayed and continue to portray First Nations people, as a savage, blood-thirsty, immoral and inhuman lot. “For fifty years, children in this country have been raised to kill Indians mentally, subconsciously through visual media until it becomes an automatic reflex” (Sanchez 164). The mainstream literature produced in America and Canada constructed the image of First Nations people to justify the colonization of the original inhabitants of North America. Popular white writers depicted First Nations women as subservient, foolish-in-love and suicidal “squaw.” Marilyn Dumont in her poems “Spineless” speaks how the most welcome image she has of First Nations women is erased due to the internalization of stereotypes. Instead, “the most unwelcome image I have of me is still here, big, loud and bitching.” (43).
While reflecting on censorship and American Indian Poetry, Janice Gourd observes:
We live in a racist and violent society in which the war on Indians
If writing by First Nations women are any indication, there is presently converging in North American poetry the message of hundreds of tribal voices – voices with the power to move, the power to survive. As Kateri Damm, a Native Woman Poet puts it: “Survival, after all, has been the focus of our energies as indigenous people since contact.” (23). Writing does not come easy for any of them who have broken through the manifestations of silencing. As Gloria Bird in her introduction to Writing the Circle admits, “It is difficult and exposing, yet is necessary to our well being, and the well being of our children”. Kateri Damm’s observation regarding the role of Indigenous writers is true of all original women: “In terms of our roles as indigenous writers part of our cultural survival in the future depends on our ability to re-focus our attentions creatively and artistically (23).
The concern for survival in North American First Nations Women Poetry is manifested primarily in two ways: (1) The celebration of positive aspects of First Nations culture – tradition, spiritually, world view and so on; (2) preparing the First Nations people, to overcome the obstacles to their survival in the modem world-alcoholism, substance abuse, vagrancy and so on. Both these elements appear combined and often intermingled in First Nations Women’s Poetry.
Like Pauline Johnson, the spiritual grandmother of the First Nations Women Writers, the aim of North American Native Women poets is to sing the glories of their own people, with joy and pride. Shawa Lynn Danielle Panipekeesick in her poem “Me” writes:
Today, the number of First Nations women who are writing and publishing is growing despite their “long history of oral tradition” and “short history of literacy” (Brant ‘77). She adds: “Like all growing things, there is a need and desire to ensure the flowering of this growth …. these flowers give us survival tools” (178).
To First Nations Women writers, the orature of their ancestors are precious treasures which have to be carefully nurtured by their communities in order to survive because that is the Good Medicine that can heal them. Their grandmothers’ bodies were appropriated by the conquerors, but the new generations have not forgotten the tradition of grandmothers, nor the legacy she carried in her womb. The reverence to grandmothers and adherence to their wisdom, the way they have shown makes every First Nations women to remember her relationship with grandmothers. For instance Jeanetta Colhoun’s poem “Storyteller” expresses her fervent wish for the voice of the grandmother.
The importance of First Nations women poetry in recording and reclaiming the role played by their grandmothers in preserving the indigenous tradition is emphasized by poets like Mercy Rendon, because [Their]
For them, reverence for women, Mother Earth, Life and Spirit are all interconnected. Irreverence for one is likely to mean irreverence for all. What Marlow Awiakta says of her Cherokee ancestors is applicable to the First Nations Women as a whole. She writes:
Identification of women with Earth has been stressed by many First Nations women poets. For instance, Sky Blue Mary Morin in her poem “A Sioux Sweat” writes of the relationship of Earth / mother and the First Nations Women.
Lack of proper knowledge about first Nation’s culture (rituals, beliefs, ceremonies and word views), the difference between their way of life and European culture has often led scholars and critics to dismiss the singing, drumming and dreaming of First Nation’s people as primitive and useless. Likewise, mainstream reviews and critical comments on First Nation literature also often reveal improper understanding of aboriginal aesthetics and its differences, with Pan-American culture. One of the major differences is that the First Nations people do not write as individuals communing with a muse. Instead, they write as members of an ancient cultural consciousness. Individuality is a concept and philosophy that has little meaning for First Nations people. Their writing is done with a community consciousness. Penny Petronne points out in Native Literature that Western epistemology is unable to properly comprehend Native literature for various reasons including its relation to the oral and the precise cultural values of mythology.
It is true that First Nations women are not in any uniform stage of political consciousness either about the oppression of Natives or of women. Nor are they at a uniform level of ability. It is not unnatural because the tidal waves of colonization have hit Native communities at different times at different ways over a span of five centuries. Despite differences in race, ethnicity, language, religion, cultures, generation, educational and personal circumstances, they all share similar experiences. Whether they are Native Americans or Native Canadians or other coloured women poets, they all are part of the sisterhood. Beth Brant, twice recipient of the Michigan Council for the Arts creative and Artist award writes:
Sister: The word comes easily to most of us. Sister hood. What holds us to that word is our commonness as Indian – as women. We come from different Nations. Our stories are not the same. Our dress is not the same. Our colour is not the same. Yet, we are the same (10).
They all use their poems to validate the voice of First Nations women and to legitimize the importance of their voice to their communal story and existence.
Victoria Lena Manyarrows, whose goal is to use written and visual images to convey and promote a positive Native-based world view writes how they survive in spite of censoring, chain of oppression, denial of their cultural rights, in one of her very significant poems “Braiding / Ribbons of Revolution”.
Like the narrative voice in most First Nations women’s poetry the “I” in the poem stands for Native women as a whole and represents the first person plural “We”. Manyarrow’s poem like other poems written by First Nations Women poets share the concern and themes of aboriginal cultural experience and affirm the responsibility of native women to bring the entire First Nations people together based on their distinct culture and world view.
Bren Kolson, who works for the betterment of Native People interested in achieving a higher understanding of Native communications and their culture writes in her poem “The Barren Journey Home”.
The First Nations women believe that from Mother Earth came many things, the people, the trees, the animals, the birds and so on.
Besides singing the glories of their Culture, First Nations Women’s poetry also introduces themes endemic to Native survival in contemporary society – alcoholism and substance abuse, physical and emotional abuse and violence, psychological and social displacement, isolation, social and internalized racism, sexism and so on. The following two quotations from Beth Brant and Bernice Sanderson would illustrate that the First Nations writers are aware of the devastative effects of alcoholism and its threat to their survival.
“There is not one of us who has not been touched by the life destroying effects of alcohol”. (Brant 11)
“Drugs and alcohol has become number one killer among our Native people. We realise this, it is spoken so often …. It has done so much to destroy us as a Native people. Our culture is dying …. We have no value of life, no understanding or compassion for our fellow human beings, no respect for our elders. Even worse, no respect of our children, our parents and ourselves.” (Sanderson 263).
During the 1930s, 40s and 50s relocation programme caused many Indians to become lost in big cities of the US and Canada and there were many casualties from alcoholism, vagrancy and petty crime. Most First Nations people were jailed for assault and battery in bar room brawls because the spiritual and psychological violation of Indian people trying to live in the dominant culture generally force them to numb themselves as frequently as possible.
A 1979 enquiry by the Ontario Native Council on Justice revealed that the minimum clear profit received by the Government from the sale of alcohol to Natives was 25 million dollars. “Native alcoholics have [thus] become profitable ‘natural resources’ and are exploited as a business” Midnight Sun reports. It adds: “This justify thousands of jobs in treatment facilities and correctional centres. Self determination and independence for Native people would mean profit-loss and unemployment for these ‘professionals’”.
First Nation women’s poetry urges their people who are alienated from their cultural heritage, alcoholics and vagrants and those who felt loneliness to get back to their old way of life, to remember the days when
In the “Uniform of the Dispossessed” Emma La Rocque also brings out instances of how First Nations people who forgot their traditional healthy life styles, and took to alcoholism are later brought back to Native ways:
Because mainstream literature in both US and Canada has been engaged in a war against First Nation people, La Rocque says.
First Nations Women’s Poetry also introduces themes and figures specific to their culture – (Trickster), so as to enable the present generation to cope with contemporary realities. Rosalie Jones, a powerful Native woman dancer and musician states:
I present material based on Native themes. The stories of creation, animal ancestors, trickster tales, and tribal histories are retold. The new stones are also told; The 20th century trickster tales of coping with the realities…. It is crucial that Native people be heard and understood at this time in history, not only for our survival, but for the survival of Earth and its people (90).
Like Midnight Sun, a First Nation woman who was actively involved with the Native groups in prison in Toronto, Native women poets are aware that the treatment rooted in European philosophies cannot restore self-sufficiency to them and that it is only the traditional Medicine people and the elders who have the knowledge to teach them what was lost to them. So they employ a number of strategies – introducing aboriginal words and concepts, incorporating traditional song rhythms, following the syntax of story-telling (orality), changing roles, shapes and voices, especially using masks etc. – to take their people back to their traditional way of life.
About the importance of masks in Native Cultures, Martin Dunn observes that ‘most culture and most certainly Aboriginal cultures in North America, use masks in ritual or ceremonial contexts’. Dunn adds that “this internalization of the mask then becomes a technique by which we communicate who we are, or at least, who we want others to think we are” (25). Jeannette Armstrong, the celebrated Native writer and activist writes in her poem “Death Mummer”, as follows:
Another significant strategy employed by First Nations writers to make voice heard is the appropriation of the coloniser’s language – English. Of course, it was not an easy task. Like other colonised peoples – Aborigines of Australia, Maoris of New Zealand, Saamis of Scandinavia, Dalits/Tribals of India — North American First Nations writers, especially women poets were aware of the problems involved in writing in English. The uneasiness and unhappiness felt by them is expressed in Doris Seales poem “On Getting Published”.
But contemporary First Nation women writers “are no longer worried about the question of language as their predecessors were. Instead, they feel that it is their birth right to speak, read and write in English” (Rocque xxvi). Rocque argues: “linguistic ‘appropriation’ can go both ways” and proclaims “I have ‘appropriated’ this language [English] without abandoning my Cree. I have sought to master this language so that it would no longer master me” (xxvi). The fact is that English has now become the “new Native language” and hence First Nations women “must attend to the task of recreating the enemy’s language” as another Native American woman poet, Joy Hargo puts it.
Of course, this appropriation of coloniser’s tongue requires extraordinary skill. Emma La Rocque maintains: “our survival, as always depends on skill” (xx). To First Nations women English is like an ideological onion whose stringing layers of racism and sexism must be peeled away for it can be fully enjoyed because neither the native writer nor the native reader look at English words the same way as non-native may. Native women poets have transformed the medium once used to oppress and silence them and have found that the written word does not have to be wrapped in the thoughts of the coloniser but rather can convey the resilience of their survival. European writers have failed miserably at conveying the essence behind our words; they have failed to transmit the life the Natives find in language on the page. As First Nation writers and as women who inherently know the nature of birth, they struggle to bring to life a language that is at times lifeless. In short, they struggle to transcend English.
To conclude, First Nations women poetry in North America today stands on its own merit and can no longer be dismissed with expressions like “as irrelevant as Native poetry” (The Globe and Mail, 16 Nov. 1983). Nor does it want to be accommodated as “a new body of ghettoized literature” (Quoted in Rocque xxix). As Beth Brant claims, “In our capable hands poetry is torn from the elitist enclave of intellectuals and white male posturing and returned to the lyrical singing of the drum …. and the balance of the Earth” (179) and they have emerged as “Truth-speakers, faith-bearers, spirit-givers and thus “survive in beauty” (Brant, 14). With Brant, they proclaim that “we are the ones who do not allow any one to speak for us but us” (11). As poets, they also take the onus of healing the whole community. Sue Deranger in her poem “untitled” asserts:
Native women poets proclaim their immense strength as distinct entity with which they survived obliteration. Leona Lysons also writes in her poem “Untitled”
Above all, First Nations Women poets believe that it is love that can put community together and Kowainco Shackelly’s poem ”Discovering, Our Journey Home” attests;
Awiakta, Marilou, Amazones in Appalachia, A Gathering of Spirit: A Collection by North American Indian Women, Toronto: The Women’s Press, 1988. 125-130.
Bird, Gloria, Introduction or The First Circle – Native Women’s Voice. Writing the Circle: Native Women of Western Canada, Univ. of Okalahoma Press, 1993, vii-x.
Blaeser, Kimberly, Certificate of Live Birth: Escape from the Third Dimension, The Colour of Resistance: A Contemporary Collection of Writing by Aboriginal Women, Antho Connie Fife, Toronto: Sister Vision Press, 1993, 45-47.
Brant, Beth, Introduction- A Gathering of Spirit, 8-15.
Ed. Ajay Heble, Donna PalmateerPennee and JR. (Tim) Struthers, The God Red Road: Journeys of Home Coming in Native Women’s Writing, New Contexts of Canadian Criticism, Ontario, Broadview Press, 1996, 175-187.
Bren, Kolson, The Barren Journey Home, Writing the Circle, 123-24.
Calhoun, Jeanetta, Story Teller, The Colour of Resistance, 97.
Chisaakay, Molly, I remember, Writing the Circle, 30-31.
Deranger, Sue, Untitled, in Gatherings, Vol.II, 95.
Durnont, Marilyn, Spineless, Writing the Circle, 43.
Gould, Janice, A Maidu in the City of Gold: Some Thoughts on Censorship and American Indian Poetry, The Colour of Resistance, 230-243.
Damm, Kateri, Who: Colonialism, Identity and Defining Indigenous Literature, Looking at the Words of Our People: First Nations Analysis of Literature, Jeannette Armstrong (Editor), Penticton: Theytus Books.
Jones, Rosalle, Dancing Tales of Old Man, Stories of the Blackfoot Trickster, Gathering of Spirit, 90.
La Rocque, Emma, Preface, Writing the Circle, xxvi.
Manyarrows, Victoria Lena, Braiding/Ribbons of Revolution, The Colour of Resistance, 122-123.
McCloud, Janet, Historical Uses and Contemporary Abuses of Alcohol and Drugs by Indigenous Americans, The Colour of Resistance, 252-262.
Midnight Sun, Canada’s Natural Resources, A Gathering of Spirit, 77-80.
Morin, Sky Blue Mary, Ahow, Holy Woman, Writing the Circle, 212-214.
A Sioux Sweat, Writing the Circle, 208-210.
Hear the Drums Speak, Writing the Circle, 211.
The Women’s Drum, Writing the Circle, 206.
Spiritual Singer, Writing the Circle, 210-211.
Nahbexie, Charlotte , Truth, Writing the Circle, 217.
Panipekeesick, Shawna Lynn Daniell, Me, Writing the Circle, 223
Rendon, Mercy, Untitled Poem, The Colour of Resistance, 127.
Sanchez, Carol Lee, Sex, Class and Race Intersections: Visions of Women in Colour, A Gathering of Spirit, 163-167.
Sanderson, Bernice , Drugs and Alcohols, Writing the Circle, 263-264.
Seales, Doris, On Getting Published, The Colour of Resistance, 88.
Shackelly, Kowainco, Discovering our Journey Home, Gatherings, Vol.II, 203.
Tanguay, Nicole, Where Will the Children Play, The Colour of Resistance, 59-60.
Welburn, Ron Masks, Gatherings. Vol.II, 80.
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